The stage is set, the stands are built, and Wales is ready for its big weekend
Anyone who has been privileged enough to breach the Celtic Manor security cordon in recent days will understand exactly what the First Minister means with his claim "this is the biggest event ever staged in Wales". With less than a fortnight to go before the 38th Ryder Cup tees off, thousands of workers have transformed this once sleepy section of the Usk Valley into a veritable jungle of grandstands, hospitality complexes, media centres and TV towers.
Brian Huggett, the 1977 captain, summed up the scale of the transformation quite nicely this week. "It's like they've built a brand new town," said the great Welsh professional, who has been making regular trips to the Twenty Ten course in his role as consultant course designer. "In fact, make that a new city." Considering that twice as many people will be attending the Ryder Cup – 260,000 – as populate the city of Newport, Huggett can be forgiven any hyperbole.
It always was the mission of Sir Terry Matthews to host the biggest and the best Ryder Cup to date and it seems as if he can already chalk up the former. The attendance record – 45,000 at the K Club in 2006 – is set to be broken, although the local hero is keen to point out these particular golfing masses will not be squeezed in like Welsh mackerel. "I went to Brookline for the 1999 match and it was ridiculous, embarrassing even," said Sir Terry. "You couldn't hardly move, let alone see much. We've ensured that not only can the course manage a huge crowd but also the spectators will have great viewing."
If Sir Terry is proven right many will applaud, not least Colin Montgomerie. Before he was appointed home captain, the Scot was told of Sir Terry's intentions. "Fifty thousand watching four foursomes?" he said incredulously. "Good luck to the spectators, that's all I can say. Simply in infrastructural terms, to get 50,000 people down to the bottom of the valley and back up again will be an art. Thank God, that's not my job."
As it turned out Monty's job was to get a dozen pros down there and he found that controversial enough. In contrast, Sir Terry has apparently found his task rather more straightforward. "We've been able to do it because we started with a blank page," said the electronics billionaire. "The viewing was a huge factor when we built this course. And it was not just thinking of the spectators in the ground or in the grandstands, but also those in hospitality. They've paid a tidy sum to be in those tents and have to be able to see over the heads to see the action. That may sound obvious but it didn't happen in Kentucky last time. We've been helped by the slopes here and have used those slopes correctly." They have also been assisted by the 1000-plus workers who for the last two months have been erecting the grandstands which will accommodate 14,000 supporters.
Then there are Sir Terry's all-seeing double-deckered grandstands on the 16th, 17th and 18th, each of which are fitted with two business centres. Saying that, Mother Nature might well win the employee -of-the-month award for the hill she sculpted overlooking the layout, which from certain vantage points, affords a view of the action on 14 holes. Sir Terry is clearly proud and finds it easy to ignore the criticisms of the disgusted purists who insist it should all be about the quality of the course.
"From scratch, we built a facility and a course specifically for the Ryder Cup," he said, figuring he has spent $50m on Twenty Ten facilities, not including the mammoth resort at the top of the complex. "Who else has ever done that? But if the Ryder Cup carries on growing as it has done this will probably become the norm. This facility will set a new standard for future Ryder Cups. Going forward they will have to house 50,000-plus per day. They can't go back to 15,000. It can't go backwards."
The teams, themselves, will certainly have new levels of expectations; not only with the hotel – which outscored the Dorchester in a recent review – but also with the team-room. While Montgomerie has been meticulous in ensuring Europe's inner sanctum is plush and exclusive – even to the point of being soundproofed – his opposite number's wife has apparently been even more detailed in her demands. "Lisa Pavin, via the PGA, has been fairly painstaking," said a source. "Everything will be just as she has requested. She's not the sort of lady you'd want to let down."
In truth, Celtic Manor and the country at large don't want anyone to go away disappointed. The stakes are too high. "The Ryder Cup is the biggest event ever staged in Wales," said the First Minister. "The Rugby World Cup in 1999 was big and we saw a tremendous legacy off the back of that. But when you consider the number of people who will come to Wales and the number of people who will watch it on TV – a potential audience of two billion – this is in a different league."
He added: "As Rhodri [Morgan, the former First Minister] always said, 'This will be our Olympics'. It's a phenomenal platform. For too long Wales sat in the corner and thought people would come to us. We didn't go out and shout about what we've got. The Irish did, the Scots did, but for some reason we didn't. But we're doing it now. We're selling ourselves and that's where the Ryder Cup will be invaluable. It will be huge in spreading the word and casting Wales in a great light."
But will that great light shine? The only thing Sir Terry and the Welsh Assembly are not able to guarantee is the weather, although the records Celtic Manor have kept for the last 18 years signifies the start of October is traditionally far better than Sir Nick Faldo's infamous "don't forget your waterproofs" quip at the 2008 closing ceremony. Yesterday, two weeks before the first day of competition, the sun blazed, only raising the anticipation of a three-day spectacular worthy of this staggering amphitheatre.
"Looking at everything that's been done I'm quite confident that, weather willing, Celtic Manor is about to host one of the most memorable Ryder Cups ever," said Huggett. "People used to knock Wales, or worse not even know it is here. I don't think they'll be doing that in a few weeks' time."
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